Tuesday, April 08, 2014
There’s a poem by Adrian Henri called ‘Welcome to my World’. It goes like this:
“Don’t find me”
snarl the poems
from the headlines
“Ne me trouvez
from the beaches.
Watching Richard Ayoade’s ‘The Double’, I was assailed by a similar sentiment … except here it was meaning and subtext daring me to explicate them; theme and imagery and symbolism offering me to come and write a review if I think I’m smart enough.
I’m probably not smart enough, but here goes anyway.
In a subgenre that’s not exactly crowded with entries, ‘The Double’ is the oddest and most iconoclastic Dostoyevsky adaptation I’ve ever seen, easily eclipsing the meta-fictive noodlings of Karoly Makk’s 1997 take on ‘The Gambler’ (an account of the writing of Dostoyevsky’s confessional novel featuring a film-within-a-film version of the novel itself). But whereas ‘The Gambler’ was written under the gun to fulfil a contractual obligation – and, in the pantheon of the great author’s work, something of a drawn breath between the huge mature works ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘The Idiot’ – ‘The Double’ dates from much earlier in his career: his second published novel, in fact, following the well-intentioned ‘Poor Folk’. It’s also a bloody hard slog to get through, mainly because much of the text is an engagement with and, to a certain degree, a refutation of works by Gogol, whereas Dostoyevsky’s later works (i.e. anything from ‘Notes From Underground’ onwards) find him utilizing what is entirely his own voice.
Suffice it to say, that Ayoade’s film retains a structural touchstone with the novel – in both, it’s about a third of the way through before the protagonist’s doppelgänger shows up – as well as exploring the idea of a nascent kinship between them before jealousy and rivalry spins the narrative towards its psychological fallout; likewise, the polarities in their personalities and how these affect their progression, or otherwise, through the rigid hierarchy of the bureaucratic system is well represented; other than that, Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine joyously go their own way with the material.
Here’s the basic set-up: low-ranking clerk Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) has the day from hell: he loses his briefcase after the doors of an underground train close on it; his ID is inside, which throws him into conflict with the jobsworth security guard at his office; his attempts to connect with Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the ethereal girl in the reprographics department, are constantly thwarted; the bills for his mother’s retirement home are increasing; and a neighbour from the opposite side of the courtyard cheerlessly waves at Simon before he leaps to his death.
Simon witnesses this as an aftermath to watching Hannah, who also lives on the opposite side of the courtyard, through a telescope. Hannah spends her evenings creating small paintings which she immediate tears into pieces and throws into the garbage chute. Simon religiously retrieves and reassembles them and pastes them into a scrapbook. Simon is arguably the most asexual and sensitive voyeur in the history of film. Carl Bohm in ‘Peeping Tom’ would probably slap him upside the head and have a few words.
It’s just after the suicide that Simon has his first glimpse of the doppelganger. The next day, at work, James Simon (Eisenberg, playing the alter ego with an incredibly subtle sureness of touch) is Simon’s new colleague and making waves in the department before he’s barely through the door. James is loquacious where Simon is tongue-tied, confident where Simon is shy, a lothario where Simon is virginal. Simon accepts what he’s told and doesn’t argue. James gets what he demands. Initially, Simon is fascinated and responds enthusiastically to an evening out where they run the gamut of being rude to waitresses, getting drunk and instigating a bar-room brawl. Then James offers to assist in Simon’s wooing of Hannah but when Simon inevitably screws things up, James steps in with predictable consequences.
So far, so Fyodor-meets-‘Fight Club’, and I sat in Nottingham’s Broadway cinema and with some degree of satisfaction mapped out a reading of the film that tied Dostoyevsky’s psychological character study to Tyler Durden’s patented brand of FTW wish-fulfilment. I’d pinpointed Simon’s waving back at his suicidal neighbour as the point at which he thinks “that’s me” (he is, after all, the quintessential nobody: a colleague describes him as “not particularly noticeable”) and creates a super-self – a facsimile from the id – in order to survive … only to engender a living, breathing and reprehensively popular avatar of the genus “be careful what you wish for”.
And while there are definite shades of ‘Fight Club’, albeit with its corollaries cloaked in caesuras where Fincher’s film veritably signposts them, Ayoade throws in more than one curveball that forces an entirely different reading. I can’t remember that last time a film wrong-footed me so often and I responded to its game-playing with such big-hearted adoration rather than simply being pissed off at the filmmakers’ irresolution and/or clever-cleverness. Much of the fun of ‘The Double’ – and may I send out a resounding accolade to Ayoade for pitching it as a comedy: played straight, the film would be unbearably depressing – owes to its melange of cultural references, and how indeterminate its setting. Is the mise-en-scene how the future would have looked in the 50s, or a vision of Orwell filtered through Terry Gilliam? Indeed, where exactly is ‘The Double’ set? The ambulances that show up for the most crucial scenes scream Britain in the 1970s; the diner Simon and James patronise is pure 60s American; their office is like Dostoyevky meets Zamyatin at a midnight screening of ‘Brazil’; the apartment block could have stepped in, equally, from Mike Leigh or Lukas Moodysson.
Muddying the waters still further is the cheesy ‘Blake’s Seven’-style TV show Simon watches. You’d be forgiven for thinking that its gung-ho hero, played in a frankly bonkers but hilarious cameo by Paddy Considine, is the model for his conjuration of James as his alter ego (if, in fact, Simon actually does author his alter ego: there is, not evidence exactly, but suggestion to the contrary) but the final correlation paints a different picture. The last we see of Simon’s TV idol, he’s unarmed and on his back, his nemesis declaring “You’ll die like a snake.” Later, facing up to Hannah after she’s discovered the Simon/James duplicity, he winces as she spits “You’re a snake.”
Other correlations speckle the film, either in its rhymed scenes à la ‘Deep Red’ (for all that Adoaye is being compared to Wes Anderson by the critics du jour there’s more of early Argento in his mind-fuckery and bravura camera movements, particularly a couple of fog-wreathed tracking shots through nocturnal exteriors), or its sound design (‘The Double’ boasts arguably the most specific attention to foley since Du Welz’s ‘Vinyan’), or its occasional, almost electrical, flashes of colour. There is a precision about the film’s use of blue – Hannah’s photocopier emits it instead of white; Simon orders a Coke at the diner and is given a glass of blue water instead; blenders of some stranger blue cocktail screech away when Simon tries to eavesdrop on James and Hannah at a restaurant – that I’m convinced is deliberate and coded and quite possible the key to the whole thing.
But like much of ‘The Double’, a second and perhaps a third or fourth viewing almost demand themselves in order to tease out the suspicions, ellipses and enigmas that tantalise on a first viewing. Perhaps there is no final and definitive take on the film. If that is the case, then Ayoade has succeeded brilliantly in creating a perfectly paranoid parable for our times. And what’s truly breathtaking is that this fearlessly accomplished piece of work is only his second outing as director, following the already accomplished and quirkily memorable debut ‘Submarine’. God know what he’s going to do next, but I’m first in the queue when it’s released.
Saturday, April 05, 2014
Disney’s highest-grossing animated film to date, ‘Frozen’ is a sometimes sentimental, sometimes satirical piece of work that is very nearly overbalanced by its structural wonkiness. Attempting a plot synopsis, the basic set-up requires probably double the exposition of the rest of the narrative. Let’s give it a go anyway.
‘Frozen’ is set in a small principality in … well, the accents suggest Germany, Norway or Cheswick; character names include Anna (pronounced Ar-nuh), Elsa, Kristoff, Hans and Olaf, which hint at anywhere from middle European to eastern Europe via Scandinavia; and much of the action takes place in a coastal town called Arendelle, which sounds like something out of Tolkein’s Middle Earth. But since the story’s based on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’, let’s cut our losses and call it Scandinavia.
(Incidentally, that’s “based on” as in one of the characters is a queen, and the setting is very wintry.)
So, in a small principality in Scandinavia, sisters Elsa (voiced by Eva Bella) and Anna (Livvy Studenrauch) live a happy life at the royal palace; their parents, the king and queen, are good and kindly. Elsa has a “talent” she was born with: the ability to conjure ice or snow from her fingertips in much the same way as Peter Parker can fling out webbing at will in his Spider-Man guise. This ability is much utilized by Anna, who encourages Elsa to build elaborate snowscape playgrounds for her in the grand halls of the palace. One day, things get out of control and Elsa accidentally flings a chip of ice that strikes Anna in the head. Desperate, the king and queen take Elsa and the unconscious Anna in the woods above Arendelle and seek the preternatural assistance of the trolls who live there. Their healing of Anna – which involves eliding her memory of the incident – and advice to the king and queen that Elsa’s gift needs to be controlled is witnessed by a young boy who has become cut off from a group of ice-cutters. This lad is subsequently taken in by the trolls and raised as one of their own. (Thus far, and we’re only about half way through the scene-setting, the POV has switched from Anna to Elsa to the now troll-adopted ice-cutter boy.)
Anyway, the royal party return to the palace where Elsa is immediately outfitted with a pair of gloves (a safety measure which makes no sense since she can turn a parquet floor in an ice rink simply by tapping it with her heel while still wearing shoes) and confined to quarters. Anna is kept ignorant of why she is refused further interaction with Elsa, and passes her childhood pining for the companionship they used to share. With the sisters still shy of adulthood, the king and queen are lost in a sailing accident. ‘Frozen’ then stumbles forward three years as Elsa (now voiced by Idina Menzel) prepares to emerge for her coronation while Anna (Kristen Bell) wants to use the occasion as a means of asserting her own independence. During the celebrations, Anna meets the courtly Hans (Santino Fontana) and after a whirlwind romance/musical number, they decide to get married. This meets with frosty (pardon the pun) disapproval from Elsa and an argument ensues. Again unable to control her powers, Elsa unleashes a snowstorm which leaves Arendelle in the grip of an eternal winter. Denounced as a witch by the scheming Duke of Weselton (Alan Tudyk), Elsa flees her home and takes to the wintry hinterlands and an ice palace of her own creation.
Still with me? Good, because here’s where the main narrative actually starts, and what it boils down to is this: Anna appoints Hans to safeguard Arendelle and takes off in search of Elsa, en route meeting ice-trader Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) who we previously met as the young boy with the step-family of trolls; meanwhile Hans, worried at the time Anna’s been gone, mounts his own search and rescue mission, unaware that the two men volunteered by Weselton have been instructed to assassinate Elsa. These parallel odysseys occupy the mid-section and the film commits the cardinal sin, here, of backgrounding its most interesting character, Elsa. The flaw is compounded by abandoning immediately after the single best song in the whole production. ‘Let it Go’ is a genuine show-stopper and a pivotal scene for Elsa; there’s a wonderful, devil-may-care moment where the filmmakers seem to be pointing Elsa towards villainess duties (and what a delicious and, may I say this of a Disney movie, sexy villainess she’d have made), but then … nothing. Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee proceed to do bog all with Elsa till the denouement, where Weselton’s villainy is revealed as a feint and the Anna-Hans-Kristoff triangle resolved by the unmasking of the actual antagonist.
En route, we have a sidetrack to the trolls’ village where – predictably – a big musical number ensues as they try a little matchmaking between Anna and Kristoff, and some comic relief courtesy of an anthropomorphic and loquacious snowman (Josh Gad) who literally wanders into the film out of nowhere (granted, there’s a provenance to his existence, but he’s not so much introduced as shoehorned in and for a good ten minutes following his entrance anyone in the audience over the age of, say, six is likely to be gawping slack-jawed at the screen and thinking WTF, am I seeing things or did a talking snowman just wander into this movie?
That the snowman talks – and, yes, delivers a big musical number – while Kristoff’s trusty reindeer, Sven, doesn’t is a rug-pull that Buck and Lee underline by having Kristoff talk for Sven (most hilariously when Kristoff needs Sven to be the voice of his moral conscience). The schism is particularly evident given Disney traditionalism: in the normal run of things, Sven would be a dead cert for a celebrity voice and a stockpile of knowing one-liners.
‘Frozen’ also monkeys with audience anticipation in its romantic subplot(s), although not – heaven forfend! – to the degree of ditching the happily-ever-after wrap-up altogether. Taking a cue from ‘The Princess and the Frog’, ‘Frozen’ cheerfully upends the handsome prince business. Moreover, when the final narrative stretch relies upon the fairytale trope “only love can melt a frozen heart” for its dramatic dynamic, ‘Frozen’ broadens the concept to filial love rather than the expect heterosexual goggle-eyed romanticism that usually defines the term in such fare.
While it’s playing games with fairytale traditions and throwing out unexpected bits of comedy (notably in the first half; the latter stages are notably lacking in humour), ‘Frozen’ is a blast; however, the structural imbalance is there, lurking under every scene like some kind of celluloid subsidence. Similarly, a quality schism in the music is apparent: ‘Let it Go’ is superb, while ‘In Summer’ wins points for sheer absurdity. Elsewhere, though, blandness prevails. Still, ‘Frozen’ is, overall, a lot of fun and the proliferation of character actors in the vocal cast rather than marquee-friendly big star names says something about the filmmakers’ commitment to their characters. A bit more commitment to the script and it could have been a stone cold classic.
Tim Brayton conducted a retrospective of the Disney animated features at his blog Antogony & Ecstasy: a series of detailed, insightful and highly intelligent essays that, in my opinion, are pretty much the last word on the Disney canon. The retrospective concluded with a review of ‘Frozen’ which is the best piece of writing you’ll encounter on the film. Tim’s frame-by-frame analysis of Elsa’s almost-transformation in the ‘Let it Go’ sequence is beautifully explicated.
Thursday, April 03, 2014
Nearly a fortnight since I checked out of the Grand Budapest Hotel? Ooops! But I haven’t been skiving, honest.
Content will resume on Agitation at the weekend. Lined up for April are un film de Ben Affleck, a recent Disney outing, and a certainly newly released blockbuster featuring a certain Marvel icon.
Sunday, March 23, 2014
The end credits of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ prominently acknowledges the inspiration of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. I’ve never read anything by him, but if his work gave Wes Anderson – one of the most unique talents in contemporary cinema – the impetus to make something as witty, inventive and sublime as this, then I need to read everything by Zweig I can get my hands on.
Remember the sequence of nested flash-forwards that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s ‘The Lives of Others’ ends with? Anderson reverses the trick, opening in the present as a studious young woman visits a cemetery and stands before the monument to an author (the author is referred to solely as The Author). The monument is hung with hotel room keys. The woman begins reading from one of The Author’s books. Flashback to The Author as an older man (Tom Wilkinson) being interrupted by a potato-gun wielding grandchild as he delivers a monologue to camera on how he came to write his most famous work. Flashback to The Author as a younger man (Jude Law), sojourning at The Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968. The place is run-down, a shadow of its former self. In the bath-house, The Author meets the establishment’s reclusive owner Zero Moustafa (F Murray Abraham), who happens to me a fan of his work. Zero invites him to dinner and proceeds proceeds to tell him the story of how he came to own the hotel. Flashback to 1932 and … And here let us pause a moment.
Remember the opening sequence of Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s ‘Cold Fever’ where the 1.66:1 aspect ratio for the crowded Toyko scenes is superceded by the full 2.35:1 widescreen as soon as the action shifts to the rugged vista of Iceland? Anderson reverses the trick, reducing the screen to a smaller aspect ratio as the 1932 story (i.e. the rest of the film) plays out. Contrapuntally, the screen floods with colour and the hotel in its glory days comes bursting to life. There are entire articles to be written on the production design, the look of the hotel and the matte painting landscape it occupies; personally, I’ll go for one of those “x-meets-y” cheats – imagine ‘The Shining’ made by Powell & Pressburger circa ‘Black Narcissus’ – and leave it at that.
The hotel is run to sycophantic perfection by its concierge, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, in what the history of cinema may well record as his finest performance), who becomes mentor to newly appointed lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori, making his acting debut). Gustave insists on discretion, servility and good manners, and personifies every aspect of the old world civility that he holds dear … until something annoys him and he fires off a litany of curses as inventive as it is vehement. Gustave also offers services of a more intimate nature to a succession of eccentric and lonely dowagers. When one of these grande dames, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), dies under mysterious circumstances, she leaves Gustave a priceless painting, Boy With Apple, in her will.
It looks for a moment as if Gustave’s ship has come in. One problem, though: the will is subject to several hundred codicils and solicitor Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) cautions that her extended family – headed up by the villainous Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his psychopathic associate Jopling (Willem Dafoe) – should be patient while the legal formalities are completed. Decidedly unwelcome at the wake, Gustave and Zero expedite the matter of Gustave’s inheritance by simply making off with the painting. Meanwhile, the political face of Europe is changing, with troops are amassing at borders; Gustave, however, is able to rely on his connection with Henckels (Edward Norton), commanding officer of a battalion which later occupies the hotel. But even nepotism can’t be relied upon when he’s accused of Madame D’s murder. Arrested and imprisoned pending trial, Gustave falls in with a group of hardened criminals led by Ludwig (Harvey Keitel), who are planning a jailbreak. But some outside help is required. Gustave ropes in Zero and the young baker’s assistant, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), with whom he has become smitten. Cue the best “cake with a file in” gag ever.
By the way, we’re merely half way through a 100 minute film at this point. To say ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is rich in incident is like saying Metallica play a bit loud. And there is still plenty of incident to come: a break-out that plays like ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ re-orchestrated as a minuet; an “on the lam” sequence which sees Gustave call upon the services of The Order of the Crossed Keys (cue cameos from Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Bob Balaban, just in case, y’know, the cast wasn’t awesome enough already); a couple of pure horror movie moments courtesy of Jopling; and a subplot wrapped up in espionage thriller imagery regarding Gustave and Zero’s pursuit of Serge X (Mathieu Amalric), the one man who can clear his name.
In lesser hands, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ would be a curate’s egg at best, and a tonally schizophrenic disaster at worst. Anderson’s control of the material, however, is so intuitive, so masterful, so sure-footed that there isn’t a wrong note in the whole thing. The balance is absolutely perfect: visual dexterity; knowingly ironic nods to diverse genres; intellectual wit tempered with beautifully timed moments of lowbrow humour; a propulsive screwball narrative of the type that even the Coen Brothers don’t trade in anymore; and (with the possible exception of Ronan’s slightly bewildered turn) a cast who are utterly in tune with their director, who “get” what he’s about and bring their A-game and then some.
Am I gushing? That’s because ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is one of the finest films I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s Anderson’s masterpiece in a filmography that is uniformly excellent. It provides the perfect material for the fullest synthesis yet of his trademark visual style and aesthetic concerns. Its touches of melancholy are acutely judged and give just the right amount of weight to a film that otherwise puts the fun in fin de siécle.
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
‘Drive’ is the best film Michael Mann never made. If Nicolas Winding Refn wasn’t watching ‘Thief’ on a loop at every stage of pre- and post-production – not to mention mainlining Tangerine Dream during the shoot – then I don’t know jack shit about cinema and I’ll draw down the shutters on this blog. ‘Drive’ is ‘Thief’ reimagined, from its clinically professional anti-hero betrayed by a yearning towards a domestic idyll, to its depiction of a precisely striated criminal hierarchy and the spiral of violence that represents the fallout of its protagonist’s careening journey from the periphery of said hierarchy to its viciously amoral centre.
But it’s more than mere copyism. ‘Drive’ is about as pure a cinematic love letter to a particular genre and a particular style of filmmaking as I’ve ever seen. Even the post-‘Jackie Brown’ movie movies of Tarantino are shot through with a knowing sense of post-modern irony even as they lovingly trawl the all-but-forgotten quarters of 70s exploitation cinema. ‘Drive’ never once tips a wink to its audience or takes a wily bow from the gallery. It lives its influences with the utmost passion and respect and sincerity.
It’s also the film I’ve been wanting Mann to make for a couple of decades now; or rather the style of filmmaking I’ve been wanting him to get back to. From the scrawled day-glo lettering of its opening credits, to its neon-drenched back-street cityscape, ‘Drive’ embodies the cool-as-fuck, unpretentious purity of Mann’s work before his gorgeous melding of perfectly lit visuals with the grittiness of film noir was bleached out by his wholesale embrace of digital cinematography. Certainly ‘Drive’ is a better nocturne – a far more aesthetically appealing black valentine to a violent city – than Mann’s own ‘Collateral’.*
In ‘Drive’, Ryan Gosling plays a character known only as The Driver or “Kid”, the latter appellation bestowed upon him by Shannon (Bryan Cranston) for whom he works, by day, as a movie stunt driver and a mechanic in Shannon’s autoshop. Shannon has dreams of managing The Driver on the professional racing circuit, and to this end solicits backing from mobsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman). By night, The Driver is a getaway driver for hire to LA’s underclass, his terms and conditions ruthlessly simple: “You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you're on your own.”
Thus the stripped-down, automotive existence which defines The Driver. Adapted from the novel by James Sallis, Refn and scriptwriter Hossein Amini eradicated The Driver’s backstory, miring him in a moment-by-moment present. He emerges, variously, as enigmatic, romantic, brutal, heroic and just about anything else you care to project onto the existential canvas of Gosling’s minimalist performance.
What happens to complicate The Driver’s life, and to uncover the various facets of his persona, is a platonic romance with his elfin neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan). Her latino husband Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac) is serving out the last weeks of a jail sentence. The Driver is drawn, protectively, towards Irene and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), but seems to harbor no antagonism towards Standard. When Standard is released from prison, he is initially wary of The Driver. When Standard is assaulted by goons in the pay of Cook (James Bibieri), a gangster to whom he owes $40,000, The Driver finds himself acting for Standard in his professional capacity when Cook coerces Standard into a pawn shop robbery to pay off the debt.
The job goes wrong from the beginning and The Driver, by now Irene’s protector in very real terms, is forced into an odyssey through LA’s underworld to track down his and Standard’s betrayer. No prizes for guessing how close to home the trail leads him.
‘Drive’ occupies a crime movie aesthetic of which ‘Thief’ is but its most obvious touchstone. The Driver’s name (or rather the job description by which he’s known) conjures the Walter Hill classic of the same title. His transition from focused professional to someone whose façade of calm masks a feverish working out of all possible angles establishes him as a continentally-separated next-of-kin to Alain Delon in Melville’s ‘Le Samourai’. The crunching but somehow morally-centered violence – notably scenes involving the non-woodwork-based application of a hammer and a repeatedly stomped-on head – could have issued from, say, Chan-wook Park’s psyche. The car chases, slow-burn tension and effortless moody cool evoke the glory days of American cinema (i.e. the 70s) when every other film seemed to be a masterpiece.
Do I consider ‘Drive’ a masterpiece? By a short margin, yes. I think it’s the fullest expression thus far of Refn’s ability to meld form, style and content. Granted, it doesn’t so much wear its influences on its sleeve as stitch them into a onesie and fully engulf itself, but this works to its betterment where a lesser director would just emerge as a cheap plagiarist. Refn coalesces a cinephile’s lifetime love of genre tropes, moody anti-heroes and iconography that functions on an almost pornographic level, and creates something, underpinned as it is by the most demure romantic subplot that an 18-rated movie has ever crafted, that is flavoured with the immediacy of his own authorial signature.
*In the interests of accuracy, ‘Drive’ was shot on an Arri Alexa digital camera. Amazingly, given the vast budgetary difference between the two, ‘Drive’ avoids the “flat” cinematography of ‘Collateral’ and boasts such a rich palette and depth of focus that I honestly believed it had been shot on film.
Sunday, March 16, 2014
Happy 39th to Sienna Guillory, still best known as Jill Valentine in the ‘Resident Evil’ saga (which is, dear God, about to deliver us its sixth instalment), but who has always seemed on the verge of that defining breakout role. Here’s hoping the best is yet to come.